Time to Talk (Civil War) Books: A Conversation with Marc Ramsey—part four

Marc Ramsey (back right) with board members of the Richmond Battlefield Association

Part four of five

In yesterday’s segment of my interview with bookseller Marc Ramsey of Owens & Ramsey Booksellers, he mentioned a recent book panel he served on where he doled out his best-book recommendations for 2016. But now, he said, “We’re into 2017, and I said I had two favorite books. . . .”

Marc Ramsey: I said I had two favorite books—and I bragged on your book, Grant’s Last Battle. It was the first book I read this year, and I gobbled it up in a weekend. I mean, it just reads.

That’s the neat thing about the Emerging Civil War Series. A lot of book people have attitudes about paperbacks, but this is something else. Like Ed Alexander’s book on the Breakthrough at Petersburg [Dawn of Victory]—really love that. And Bert Dunkerly’s on the different surrenders and things [To the Bitter End]. Have some fun. Get ‘em. Read ‘em.

So that was my favorite. The picture of Grant you paint—you paint a really good portrait of the man. And it’s a different picture. I’m used to Grant the soldier, and I’ve been mildly interested in poor Grant the president. I think I need to study him a bit more to give him more credit. But then the poor guy, he just runs out of his luck, and he gets hurt, and he’s dying, and it’s awful. Throat cancer, twenty cigars a day—there might be a connection. (laughs)

But my next favorite, the book I’ve bragged about so much I even ended up having to sell my own copy, ’cause I did too good of a sales job. The guy was like, “I know you’ve got one more, Marc. I’ve gotta have it.” It’s the [Noah Andre] Trudeau book, Lincoln’s Greatest Journey. Man, that’s a good book.

There’s a bunch of us who are fascinated by Lincoln’s visit to Richmond. We’ve been kicking it around for years. Did he really come ashore at 17th Street? Did he really come ashore the second day?

I had a 45-minute phone call with Mr. Trudeau at one point. Nice guy. He really tried to find every source that he could so he could get it right. He really did some research that impressed me with this. We’re so used to hearing the story from Admiral Porter. He wrote his twenty years after the fact. I have a book here, Under the Blue Pennant by one of the sailors that was part of the group, but there are some inaccuracies in that, and he’s an eyewitness. He was admiral Porter’s aide. So there are lots of inconsistencies in the story. Trudeau gets it as right as you possibly can get it

And one of the things that really impressed me—and maybe other historians have done it, but I don’t know—he went to the National Archives of the U.S. Navy vessels that were involved on the James River, include the Bat, which was a former blockade runner. Captain Barnes commanding. The log of Admiral Porter’s flagship, the Malvern, and the River Queen, and these log books are kept almost minute-by-minute by U.S. Navy officers that better get it right. Alright: Lincoln is on board between blah-blah and blah-blah. He goes ashore, you know. This is a solid eyewitness account, a contemporary account. As good of material as you can get. And Trudeau made good use of it. That was really cool.

One of the confusing things about the story is Lincoln sees Libby Prison and he’s here and there—he goes ashore the second day! He goes ashore on Wednesday, as well, briefly, and then goes back down the river. That helps explain everything. It’s a good book. It just reads.

Chris Mackowski: Chris Kolakowski read the book and interviewed Trudeau about it for the blog, and he just raved about the book.

MR: How many of us really appreciated the battle of Fort Stedman—an incredible event—and Lincoln’s on the boat, hears the gunfire, hears the cannons, sees the prisoners! (gasps) I never thought of Lincoln being on the edge of that story. Holy moley. That’s great.

The descriptions of Mary Lincoln—what a piece of work. And her and Mrs. Grant. . . .

There’s things like, at the dock at City Point, there’s enough room for one ship. So Grant’s personal ship, with Mrs. Grant, is tied up to the dock. Well, here comes River Queen with Mary on it, and Mary is not going to condescend to have to cross over the deck of Mrs. Grant’s boat, so when they pull in, they have to move Grant’s boat, park Mary’s boat, park Grant’s boat until Mary’s wants to leave, and then they have to move everything again. . . . (laughs). I mean, man. She sees some officers ride by—she’s in a carriage—and Mrs. Ord is this equestrian lady and apparently really hot, and Mary just gets hugely jealous, sure that Mr. Lincoln has eyes from Mrs. Ord. Mary, calm down—please. Poor Mary.

CM: On the flip side, you talked about being infatuated with Lee early on. Aside from the Lincoln story, do you have a person now that you’re particularly interested in?

MR: I’ll share this anecdote: I’ve been married twice. My wife and partner, now, Jill, she’s a wonderful gal. But for a few years I was married to a girl, right after I came to Virginia, she was the great, great granddaughter of Walter H. Stevens, one of Lee’s close friends and last chief engineer. And it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that when we started dating she made me read Lee’s Lieutenants to get my mind right since I was a Pennsylvanian. (laughs) Now, I didn’t have to go very far since, as you say, I grew up with Lee.

I’m like a lot of Pennsylvania guys, yourself included, we come to Virginia. We love history. It’s just, “Oh, great! I’m in Virginia now!” So I’ve just loved all things Virginian. I’m just fascinated by Stonewall Jackson. Bud Robertson has helped that fascination. I can’t get enough of hearing him speak about Jackson. Jackson and the Valley Army. All those things.

So Lee’s Lieutenants: that cast of characters. These powerful, arrogant, quarreling men—I am just fascinated by. There’s just no end to that. You can pick any of them: Ewell. Longstreet. Any of these guys. But the two are Jackson and Lee.

And then of course, my good friend Jeff Wert—I don’t know if you read his book a couple years ago, A Glorious Army. It’s the period of time when the Army of Northern Virginia was winning. You feel sorry for the Army of the Potomac. There’s a place in my heart for the Army of the Potomac. But they’re going up against Lee, Jackson, Longstreet. (laughs) And look at the bozos, the series of people commanding that army. They don’t have a chance against this combination. I don’t care about resources. It’s just an incredible time. So the hammer and the anvil.

CM: I think about “Lee’s A-Team.” Once the A-Team starts to break up, that’s when things start to unravel.

MR: Yeah. It’s all about leadership. I can’t get enough studying about that.

Now, on the Northern side, to give the Devil his due—and there’s a really good book that’s just come out by Dennis Rasbach, Joshua Chamberlain and the Petersburg Campaign. I just sold them all. I got five of them and they went (he snaps). I have a first edition of Chamberlain’s The Passing of the Armies out there—twenty-two hundred. Beautiful copy of it, though. But I’m a Chamberlain kind of guy. Because Little Round Top—

For a little while in my life, I was a single father. I had two boys. And I figured a really good life lesson would be to take them to Little Round Top and read from the [John J.] Pullen book on the Twentieth Maine, the section about what the Twentieth Maine did up there and what they were facing. The 15th Alabama coming at them again and again, and they’re out of bullets, and so what do you do when all hope is gone? You fix bayonets and you charge.

Both my boys have turned out to be pretty good, and they’re both book people—so I think they appreciated that a little bit.

I know Joshua Chamberlain has his detractors, because he’s something of a self-promoter. He wrote a lot, sure—John B. Gordon wrote a great book, too. Gordon is another character I like a lot. So maybe Chamberlain overemphasizes his own role. But Chamberlain is fascinating, and he was brave and brave can be, and he’s a good writer. It’s just a pleasure to follow him through.

I heard a lecture a while back. We used to go to stand-up comedy but it got too raunchy for us, so now we go to lectures. (laughs) But somebody—I forget who—did a lecture about Chamberlain and his writing about Appomattox. And in this lecture, there were five different accounts that he wrote about that moment with John B. Gordon. First a letter to his wife where he doesn’t mention the salute or anything, and it just gets more and more heroic. So what’s the truth? I think they’re all great.

I think that sometimes works to his disadvantage. And the same with Gordon. They both wrote these books that read really well, and so people tend to think, “That can’t possibly be true.”

Yeah, like, “It’s got to be made up.”

Like John B. Gordon’s book, Reminiscences of the Civil War. It’s a great read. It’s really exciting. But he really did it all. He really was there.

Another one is by Barry Benson, one of my favorite accounts from the ranks. Benson and his brother, Blackford Benson, were Palmetto Sharpshooters. They’re in the 1st South Carolina, and they’re sharpshooters throughout the war. Benson is captured twice. He escapes from Elmira. He dug a tunnel and made it back. It’s just so well written. Even a sense of humor throughout. It’s so fantastic that, over the years, people have said, “He couldn’t have done that and been in all those places.” Well a guy at the University of Tennessee Press a couple of years ago actually wrote a book about the historical Barry Benson and demonstrated that, yes! this guy really was there. It’s really cool.

But just that topic: how could some of these people have really done all of this? But they might have. That’s part of the thing.

The whole subject is just such an incredible theater piece, with such incredible characters coming and going from the stage. And just impossible moments happening—that are real. Burnside’s Bridge. Confederates stop the Ninth Corps for a couple of hours. The Federals finally get across, start going up the hill, and A. P. Hill arrives right at that moment (laughs) and saves the Confederate right. Moments like this are all throughout the story. It’s just incredible!


Tomorrow, Chris wraps up his conversation with Marc Ramsey by talking about the book industry as a whole: Is it dying, as some people say? There is die-off, Marc suggests—but not in the way most people think.

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